On Faith and Social Change

scriptures-eye-glasses-758818-wallpaperToday, the news is full of debates about religion, gender, and marriage. Tomorrow, it will surely be marked by some other controversy. Regardless of the time or topic, though, traditional religion and secular society will probably always have something to disagree about. But in the midst of these sometimes vitriolic opposites of opinion, I often worry about the casualties in the middle, the bright minds and open hearts that, in a sincere desire to be loving and inclusive, surrender their faith under intense social pressure, disillusioned by the unenlightened behavior of some believers or by the self-righteous chiding of the popular crowd. To these uncertain saints, this post is a plea: keep the faith! Don’t relinquish the light you’ve already won just because it seems to have lost its social currency.

When popular, secular voices have challenged my own faith, I’ve come time and again to the sixth chapter of John. There, we read a lengthy—and difficult—sermon which the Savior delivered to a group of disciples. In it, He declared Himself to be the bread of life and, drawing on that symbolism, invited everyone to partake of eternal life by saying, “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the symbolic imagery turned stomachs, and some of the disciples’ faith soured. “From that time,” John tells us, “many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (John 6:66). Despite previous sermons that had touched their hearts, these disciples abandoned their faith once the Savior’s teachings lost their popular appeal.

Thus, with disciples leaving en masse, the Savior turned to His closest followers, the Twelve Apostles, and asked, “Will ye also go away?” (John 6:67). In some quiet moments of doubt, I’ve asked myself questions similar to that one. However, I’ve always found renewed faith and greater courage in Peter’s response: “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:68-69).

It probably would have been easy for Peter to have left with the crowd. He probably would have had more friends in society, and he probably would have had a more comfortable life than he ended up having. However, Peter didn’t let go of his faith when its popular approval rating hit an all-time low. Instead, he turned to the Lord and affirmed his faith, refusing to sever his access to the words of eternal life.

The loud voices in the world today shout slogans of social justice, confusing  sanctions against behavior for condemnations of people. But in all the noise and equivocation about tolerance, equality, or religious liberty, there’s never any consideration of the eternal. That’s not an accident: worldly social movements are necessarily limited in scope to worldly, earthly concerns. They can offer their approval or threaten their scorn, but they cannot promise salvation.

Popular social movements often make convincing arguments and pathetic appeals, tugging at the good-natured impulses of people who would never consider themselves boors or bigots. But before we get confused, holding to faith doesn’t mean snubbing whole classes of people—it means trusting in a higher power. For years, Peter’s faith meant that he could only preach to the people of Israel, but his enduring faith in the Son of God prepared him to lead a social revolution and to take the gospel of salvation to the nations of the world.

Despite what some may say, embracing faith will never make someone a bad person—nor will leaving faith ever make them a better one. Because the gospel is  fundamentally inclusive, it provides room for a whole range of social and political perspectives. It may be more difficult to harmonize our faith with some popular causes than with others, but, while distancing ourselves from a cause may cut us off from some group’s approval, distancing ourselves from our faith will cut us off from the very source of salvation. Surely, where a choice must be made, we must choose to keep the faith!

I don’t have all (or even most) of the answers to the difficult questions we may face—but I do trust that the words of eternal life are truly and uniquely found in Jesus Christ. His is a gospel of love and inclusion as much as it is a gospel of repentance and sacrifice. Clarity may not come to us all at once, but understanding and peace will surely come when we bravely and patiently hold onto faith, affirming as Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? … [W]e believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.”

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